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Nothing says Thanksgiving like a turkey with all the trimmings. Unless you're in my family.
When my kids were small, they had multiple food allergies – all three of them different. The main suspects were wheat, dairy and sugar. Lesser offenders were chocolate, food dyes and random chemical additives. In short, anything a child would want to eat. I challenge anyone to prepare a festive meal with those parameters.
There was a time when I dreaded a celebratory dinner more than the poor, soon-to-be-butchered turkey did. He, by the time he graced my table, would be feeling no pain. I, on the other hand, would suffer for hours. But with practice, I got it down to a fine art.
As the children grew they were able to tolerate more foods. For a while I could see light at the end of the dietary tunnel. However, in a bit of nostalgia I find puzzling, they viewed those difficult years with fondness and have revisited the time of restricted diets. All three became vegetarians as teenagers. One even crossed to the "dark side" of vegetarianism, becoming a vegan. She maintains it still, with the occasional lapse for a hunk of cheese or an egg – and that only because her doctor told her she needed more food in her food.
I realize that vegetarians and vegans can have healthy diets. I have no quarrel with that. It's just that when I am charged with serving dinner to a crowd, accommodating all the idiosyncrasies is difficult. I often suspect they are yanking my chain and trying to find my breaking point. It's not far off.
My kids have attached themselves to friends and partners with equally difficult diets. While other families may strive for ethnic diversity at their holiday tables, we strive for dietary diversity. Never mind black, white, Asian, Muslim … we have vegetarians, vegans, gluten- and dairy-intolerant guests, meat eaters, someone avoiding sugar, and a family member with Crohn's disease.
My dilemma starts with the turkey. Each year, I splash out and order an organic, free-range turkey from the local health food store. After being assured that the bird has spent more time at the spa than I have and is therefore a happy, relaxed creature, I reason that such an extravagance can be justified. The rest of the year I buy whatever meat is on sale.
Since the turkey is fresh, not frozen, it must be picked up the day before the holiday. It occurs to me that for the price I'm paying for this bird, it should be chauffeur-driven to my doorstep and paraded on a red carpet to my kitchen.
The real fun starts with the stuffing. Over the years, I have devised a recipe that includes whole-wheat breadcrumbs, onions, celery, soy-based margarine (cold pressed, I have it on good authority, by hermit monks deep in the caves of Tibet) and seasonings. No dairy.
But that doesn't satisfy the needs of the gluten-intolerant. And so I make Batch 2 with non-gluten bread and monk margarine.
I would like all the diners to enjoy the flavour of the turkey juices, but the vegans cannot eat stuffing that's been cooked in the bird. The gluten-intolerant guests won't eat regular stuffing. I ask myself: Does "gluten ooze" exist? Could it permeate all that turkey meat, bone and skin and poison them? Fine. Now we have three different dressings.
Mashed potatoes sound simple. But again, no dairy. I provide a dish of plain, dry "riced potatoes" for the purists. If they are among the meat eaters, they can avail themselves of the delicious turkey gravy I make from scratch. If they are vegan or vegetarian they eat a soy-based "gravy" that, I say in all candour, even the dogs wouldn't touch.
Oh, I stand corrected. One Thanksgiving, when my daughter made the "gravy" and brought it in her car, it spilled all over the back seat and her hound wolfed it down.
Years ago I came across a delightful vegan "loaf" made with carrots, cashews, pumpkin, onions and seasonings. It has been my salvation. It is served with a tangy cranberry chutney flavoured with ginger and curry powder. For the more traditional guests there is also a cranberry-orange relish and regular cranberry relish. I provide a small sign in the dish that warns: Sugar Overload.
Veggies are plain – no butter, no sauce, just lots of brightly coloured roughage.
The favourite dessert is homemade pecan pie with whipped cream. Before I make this, however, I ensure that my insurance is paid up and that all things breakable have been removed from the dining area. If my grown children go into a sugar rage, they could damage something.
My default pie is plain apple made with no sugar. For the gluten-intolerant, there's an apple crisp with rice flour and cereal flakes. And I provide three choices of topping: real whipped cream, edible oil product and goat's milk ice cream. At least I don't have to milk the goat.
If it sounds like I'm complaining about all the work, I am. But I'll do it every year for as long as I can, since it means I will be surrounded by loving faces. I realize how very fortunate I am.
Now, if I can just arrange for that chauffeur-driven limo for the bird.
Laurie Best lives in Waterloo, Ont.